Friday, June 10, 2022

Stones In His Pockets – a busy version of a classic play about dreams and where we find our hope (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 3 July)

Stones In His Pockets is now over 25 years old and continues to speak to audiences. It’s about the equation of dreams, hope, agency and acceptance. Local audiences on its home island may acknowledge the pull that north American streets paved with gold has on young Irish heads: “everything he wanted is somewhere else”.

English audiences may laugh at the perspective of hapless Irish extras who have overinvested in a glittery Hollywood production that has taken over a Kerry townland. They may also see their own daily toil in the employ of multi-national firms as having similar struggles for power and approval. American audiences may sit back and realise that the powerful cinematic circus brings its vices along with its virtues and spending power that taint communities as much as it invests in them.

The Lyric Theatre audience join Charlie Conlon (Gerard McCabe) and Jake Quinn (Shaun Blaney) as extras on the filmset of The Silent Valley. The stage is dominated by trussing and flightcases, the clobber that litters corners of soundstages around the world. The shape of tents – accommodation for wannabe movie stars who have travelled across Ireland to be there – can be discerned in the rather busy backdrop that doubles as a projected sky and landscape. Rails of costumes bulk up the crowd in this two-handed comedy.

But it’s the boots scattered in a stream that runs past one corner of the stage that speak out the loudest over the whizzy audio-visual imagery. Boots, perhaps representing the wasted lives of local people whose dreams have been drowned due to insufficient buoyancy of hope.

McCabe and Blaney are on top form as they rotate through a myriad of recurring characters through a shift of a cap, a tug of the braces, pulling a shoulder out of a coat. Walking sticks are fashioned out of neck ties. The adaptable costumes are somewhat at odds with the rake of props and backdrops that leave less to the audience’s imagination. The shower scene works well, combining physical humour with good lighting. By establishing early on that the paying audience are also working on the film, we become complicit in the townspeople’s uneasy relationship with the bright lights of Hollywood.

The ridiculous situations and the fine wordplay trigger bursts of laughter that ripple across the stalls. The dance number steers clear of aping Riverdance and instead delivers a breath-taking exhibition of stamina and mirth.

There’s no doubt that Stones In His Pockets is an entertaining romp. But a critic’s overactive mind notices the adulation but still ponders the ambition of a production, the creative decisions and the what’s missing.

Director Matthew McElhinney makes brave choices with his playwright mother’s work. Marie Jones’ text has been heavily modernised since the Theatre Royal Bath and Rose Theatre Kingston production that toured through the Grand Opera House in 2019.

Before the interval, a tragedy occurs that is central to the play’s title and shakes the extras into realising how they are being treated and manipulated. This new Barn Theatre production puts mirth before pathos, and reminiscent of another company’s 2019 version, what could have been the pivotal moment of great gut-wrenching gravity and distress is somewhat lost amongst the larking around in the scenes that come immediately before and after. While the second act thoroughly examines where the blame might lie for the conditions that led to the local man’s death, we neither relate well enough to Sean to properly grieve for his passing nor see the evidence that it will be a truly decisive turning point for a townland that has already lost many boots in its stream.

The proptastic and audio visually heavy experiment pleases audiences at the expense of adding to the run time and ridding the need for audiences to paint their own canvass. While Marie Jones’ creates a library of mostly male characters, an interesting twist would be to cast a female actor into one of the roles, hamming up the men rather than sashaying the couple of women portrayed on stage. Something for the 30th anniversary production to consider!

Stones In His Pockets continues its run at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 3 July.

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